From ‘Wingnut’ Chronicler to Deadline Artist

In a political atmosphere defined by polarization, John Avlon has been a raging voice for moderation. His first book, “Independent Nation,” trumpeted centrism as a solution to the nation’s political ills, and his 2009 follow-up “Wingnuts” shone a harsh light on how the extremist wings of both parties

polluted our civic discourse.

After so much toiling in the muck of radicalism, it’s only natural that Avlon would want a cleansing. On the wingnut-free “Deadline Artists” (Overlook, $18.42), Avlon and his two co-editors, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis, look to the past in an effort to compile the best newspaper columns in the categories of war, politics, humor, crime, sports, civil rights, farewells and the pursuit of happiness. This captivating, 426-page tome spans more than a century and features work from Ernest Hemingway to Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Breslin to Mitch Albom, Orson Welles to George F. Will. With so many compelling voices, “Deadline Artists” offers something for everyone tastes, while immortalizing one of American literature’s most compact art forms.

Avlon will appear onstage at the Chapman Conference Center at 4:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the Miami Book Fair International. He’ll be joined by Stanley Crouch, Mike Barnicle, Errol Louis and Pete Hamill. In the meantime, he spoke with Boca Raton in an exclusive interview.

First of all, what a great read this “Deadline Artists” is. It’s portable, I don’t have to read it from front-to-back, and I can absorb it at my own pace.

That’s exactly the idea. What we wanted most of all was to give people great writing and to rescue some of these classic columnists from microfilm and back stacks of libraries, because their voices are so vital. These are classic American personalities, and they’re all great storytellers, whether they’re writing about sports, politics, humor, crime, war – and one of the nice things about this American art form is that it is bite-sized. It works well with our attention spans, the average length of a column being about 800 words. People can get a taste of literary journalism and move on and kind of change their perceptions about the possibility of the form. That was part of the idea, so I’m glad it’s working for you.

So you actually dug through microfiche? A lot of these columns are not available in online archives?

Most of them were not available online at all. We followed the precept that I think people should when they’re writing a book – you should write the book you want to read. So in this case, we compiled the book we wanted to read as young journalists. We were kind of amazed that nothing like this really existed. We were talking to some of our older colleagues, and Jack Newfield and Breslin remembered this column “The Death of Frankie Jerome” by Westbrook Pegler. It hadn’t been anthologized since 1924. It took us months to find. Even just a few months ago, when we were on the anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, I wanted to do a link to Jimmy Breslin’s beautiful, tough column called “Are You John Lennon?” It wasn’t online. I called a friend who works at the Daily News, and they didn’t have the rights to publish it, let alone a digital copy. Breslin didn’t either. So in many cases, for a number of different reasons, the best of these columnists – especially the tabloid columnists, who wrote with their ears close to the ground – they haven’t had their work archived as well as it should be. And those are some of the greatest voices.

Of course, Florida has a phenomenal columnist tradition as well, especially with people who are writing right now. Carl Hiaasen is a perfect example of a classic newspaper columnist still writing today, a guy who can hit any pitch. He can write in any form. And he’ll always lace it with humor, but the thing about a humor column is sometimes it takes satire to tell the truth. He’s up there with the best of all time, and Dave Barry is justly famous as a humor columnist. You read his work, and it’s brilliant, and the writing is unbelievably quick and sharp and unassuming and breaks down that barrier that can

exist between a writer and a reader.

Yes, I was glad to see so many pieces in this book from the Miami Herald, and I’m sure our readers down here will be too.

Good – yeah, we made a real effort to be representative of different regions and different eras. We wanted to make sure of that in each section so that if you scanned the section, you also got a sense of the sweep of American history, that things were working chronologically. But we also wanted to make sure we were representative of different regions, and it was easy with Florida. We could only pick one Leonard Pitts column, but his column written the morning of 9-11 perfectly channeled the outrage and grief of this country at that time, and it endures. It is one of the great modern newspaper columns.

This book isn’t as controversial as some of the other books you’ve written, but have you still gotten responses like, “I can’t believe you omitted so-and-so from such-and-such paper?”

We’ve started a conversation, and that’s part of what we wanted to do. We tried very hard to make sure that we spoke to columnists and people who were in the business about their favorite columns. We had the National Society of Newspaper Columnists do an online poll that took together their readers’ conceptions. We spoke to journalism professors. We looked at past anthologies. But at the end of the day, we realized that this is a subjective judgment. We tried to make sure that we got all the classic greats, but we wanted to begin a conversation, to just get these classic columnists who came before us recognized as artists in their own right. Because I don’t think they’ve gotten the respect and appreciation they broadly deserve. The response has been phenomenal. People have been telling us that we rescued these beloved but half-remembered columns from the recesses of their mind. One of the reasons we set up a Facebook page for the book and a website is that we want to get people’s feedback. Actually the book’s doing so well that there’s been talk of doing a second volume, or maybe serializing it into separate sections. We want the benefit of this conversation, so we can include some of those columns we might have missed.

Did you discover any pieces or writers through your research process?

Oh yes. There’s some you know but you don’t know how good they were. Will Rogers is due for a revival. Dorothy Thompson was one of the most influential columnists of the 1930s, and is largely forgotten. Westbrook Pegler and Haywood Broun were two of the biggest columnists of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and they feuded famously, but when you read their work today, it has the quality of great writers in that it’s timeless. It still reads crisply. Frankly, I’d never heard of them before we started this process.

You mentioned the subjectivity of your choices, but I like that there was no agenda. I can’t think of many books that have essays by both William F. Buckley and Hunter S. Thompson. And I love reading both.

We did that on purpose. I wanted to make sure, especially in the political section, that there was no ideological litmus test, that we represented the full spectrum. That’s the thing about the great political voices who are making an argument. You can appreciate the elegance of their argument even if you don’t agree with their political perspective, and that’s the kind of debate we should be having in our nation. Life in a democracy is a never-ending debate, and columnists represent some of the best of that civic tradition that we’ve lost – respectful disagreements, the use of humor to make a larger point. Part of the problem with the rise of partisan media today is you have people who only consume columnists that echo their own political agenda, rather than opposing themselves to the full spectrum. So I’m glad that we have William F. Buckley and Molly Ivins next to each other.

All of your columns come from traditional, esteemed old guard newspapers. But have the proliferation of columns and opinions and blogs on the Internet today diluted the impact of the traditional newspaper column? Can the average reader discern the difference?

Sure. Individual human judgment hasn’t been changed by technology, and I don’t think we can festishize form; the important thing is content. I mean, yes, as we have the proliferation of opinion online, that’s one of the interesting macro themes of the book: We’re living in a time when people are writing obituaries for newspapers every day, and yet we’re seeing online opinion proliferate like never before. What’s in danger of being lost is some of that sense of quality – what makes a reported column, that sense of continuity and tradition. And that’s one of the reasons we did the book, to help us raise our own game. This book as an education and an inspiration for us. We wanted to compile this book so we could learn from it. That was in no small part the point.

Specifically to your talk on Saturday at the Book Fair, what will be your focus of that program?

This is going to be great. We’ve got three classic columnists on the stage with us. It’ll be an onstage conversation about the classic art of column writing. They are deadline artists, and we are younger practitioners of the same craft. We’ll have an intergenerational conversation about what makes a great column.

In “Wingnuts,” two of the people you singled out for chapters were Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. Do you have to take some satisfaction or validation in the fact that both of them have been marginalized and now and have much smaller audiences than when you wrote that book?

Certainly some; if you look at the folks we put on the cover of “Wingnuts” – you mentioned Beck and Olbermann but also Sarah Palin – were enormously influential when that book came out in the spring of 2009. All three of them are far less relevant today. Beck and Olbermann are no longer on air in their same perches. Interestingly, both have branched out and tried to do a more innovative approach to television media, but they have far less reach and influence because they’re no longer on their respective cable stations. And Palin, after sucking up all that oxygen for those two years, announced that she wasn’t running, and it was anticlimactic. She almost entirely disappeared. I do think that’s a hopeful sign of a pushback. Of course, when you’re dealing with extremism in American politics, it’s always a many-headed hydra: You slay one, and new ones pop up. To some extent, Sarah Palin’s niche was taken up by Michele Bachman, who proved much more willing to go further than Palin would in terms of practicing the politics of incitement, of playing politics by talk-radio rules. And that’s one of the things that has made her less relevant. But I do hope we have turned the page on the wingnuts.

Do you feel with these recent election results from a couple of weeks ago that we seem to embracing centrism, and rolling back some of the extreme people we elected in 2010?

I do think there’s a hopeful sign. I’ve written a lot about the cycle of overreach and backlash, and it is what happens; when ideologues take over polarized political parties, they misinterpret election victories as ideological mandates. They overreach, and almost immediately there’s a common-sense backlash. And that is what we saw in these elections. There were mixed results; in Ohio, two philosophically opposing ballot initiatives passed overwhelmingly, and I like to see high turnout. I think that shows a sign of civic engagement. But that cycle of overreach and backlash is really in overdrive.

Lastly, I hear Chris Matthews use your term Obama Derangement Syndrome a lot without crediting you. How do you feel about the fact that some of the ideas from “Wingnuts” have become free-floating memes in our political discourse?

Look, I have a lot of respect for Chris Matthews; I like his show, and his first book, “Kennedy and Nixon,” is a great political book. There have been other incidents as well; I wrote about the birth of White Minority Politics, and that popped up subsequently in a Frank Rich column after I’d given a copy of the book to him. I don’t think it’s a CNN-MSNBC thing necessarily, because I’m a CNN contributor, but at the end of the day I don’t think you can be proprietary about ideas. We’re trying to move forward a debate. Obviously, I prefer credit on some of this stuff, but it is the marketplace of ideas, and I’m glad to see some of these terms that I was trying to get out there get adopted by other folks I respect. I don’t think there’s bad faith or ill intent at all in it.

“Deadline Artists: A Conversation with Stanley Crouch, Mike Barnicle, Errol Louis, Pete Hamill and John Avlon” is at Chapman Conference Center at Miami-Dade College at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free, but seating is limited, to tickets are required. Call 305/237-3258 or visit miamibookfair.com.